Protesters carrying China’s flag take part in a demonstration against Japan’s claims in the East China Sea. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Thrown off balance by a cacophony of claims in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia is struggling to cope with the “big and heavy” presence of China and the United States in the region and needs to face up to growing security and political challenges, the secretary general of a regional group said in an interview.

Surin Pitsuwan was speaking Monday after the start of a meeting of economic ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. It was the first major gathering of regional officials since an acrimonious conclave last month that highlighted deep divisions created by China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea and rhetorical blasts about the waterway from Beijing and Washington.

At the earlier meeting, in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, foreign ministers could not agree on the wording of a final communique for the first time since the regional association’s founding in 1967.

Pitsuwan, Thailand’s former foreign minister and head of ASEAN’s secretariat since 2008, said in an interview that he was surprised by the breakdown in Phnom Penh, where the group’s customary low-key pursuit of compromise gave way to testy deadlock amid complaints of microphones being abruptly disconnected and allegations of backstage meddling by China.

The failure, Pitsuwan said , was “a wake-up call that these [security] issues will occur and we should be prepared to handle them.”

Cambodia, a close friend of China and the current holder of ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, refused during the July gathering to accept pleas that the final communique include a mention of recent flare-ups in the South China Sea between China and two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Manila and Hanoi accused Cambodia of putting its allegiance to Beijing ahead of its obligations to its regional partners and of pushing the 10-nation group to its most severe crisis in years. Cambodia, although heavily dependent on Chinese aid and investment, angrily denied acting on instructions from Beijing.

Tensions in the South China Sea, where five ASEAN members have claims that brush up against those of Beijing, are “becoming more and more of a stress on the system,” Pitsuwan said. That, he added, underscores the urgent need to make progress toward a stalled code of conduct for the disputed waters. The key, he said, is to “get around” questions of sovereignty and focus instead on practical measures to curb the risk of maritime clashes. But, he said, “this will take some time, because it is emotionally charged and extremely volatile. Positions are far apart, but eventually, we will get to a practical solution.”

Role as ‘insulation’

ASEAN, which is meeting near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat under the slogan “one community, one destiny,” has traditionally worked to paper over its differences. The risk of conflict in the South China Sea, however, has exposed the shortcomings of that approach at a time when China and the United States are stepping up their military and diplomatic activities in the region.

Washington takes no position on the territorial disputes. But the Obama administration, which has made a foreign policy “pivot” to Asia, has voiced growing concern over the risks of confrontation in the waterway. Th£e United States has stepped up security cooperation with the Philippines, with which it has a 61-year-old mutual defense treaty, and with Vietnam, which looks to America as a counterweight to a rising China.

Jousting over the South China Sea and over disputed islands to the north claimed by both Japan and China has shadowed booming trade and investment ties across East Asia and added to frictions between Beijing and Washington. The State Department this month criticized China for setting up a military garrison on an island in the South China Sea, accusing it of undermining diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes peacefully. China lambasted the U.S. assertions, with the state-run Xinhua News Agency dismissing them as “groundless and irresponsible” and urging Washington to “draw back its meddling hand.”

The feuding has pushed ASEAN into the uncomfortable role of acting as “insulation between China and the U.S.,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, an Australian expert on regional security and the author of a recent study of the group’s troubles over the South China Sea.

Originally set up in response to fears of communist subversion in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, ASEAN was long scorned by China as an instrument of the United States but has in recent years been embraced by Beijing as a vehicle to boost economic ties.

At the same time, China has been alarmed by ASEAN’s moves to become more involved in political and security issues, with some Chinese foreign policy experts warning that the association could go the way of the Arab League, a long-somnolent organization that, reinvigorated by the Arab Spring, has been at odds with Beijing in recent months over what to do in Syria and elsewhere.

China rejects any role for ASEAN in resolving territorial disputes and insists that the ownership of islands and reefs in the South China Sea can be addressed only through bilateral talks. But it has expressed some readiness to discuss a code of conduct for the waterway. “China wants ASEAN to be reasonably strong but also compliant,” Thayer said.

Wary of getting bogged down in arcane but highly contentious maritime quarrels, ASEAN ministers meeting this week are focusing on trade and other economic issues and want to stay clear of the South China Sea. “I’m not going to touch it. This is strictly economic,” said Gita Wirjawan, Indonesia’s trade minister.

Wealth gap a threat

In his opening address, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, made no mention of the maritime disputes but instead spoke of the debt crisis in Europe, high oil prices and slowing export growth, and he singled out the wealth gap between member states as “a great threat” to the association’s future.

Pitsuwan, the secretary general, said “political hiccups” over the South China Sea will not slow what he described as an irreversible trend toward greater economic integration.

The association, which includes some of the world’s most dynamic economies as well as some of its weaker ones, such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia, is working to establish a single market in 2015, an important step toward regional integration akin to moves in Europe that led to the creation of the European Union. But, Pitsuwan said, ASEAN has no plans to set up a large central bureaucracy similar to the one in Brussels. The association’s administrative headquarters in Jakarta has only about 200 employees, including clerical staff and drivers. The European Commission in Brussels has more than 33,000.

ASEAN, he said, “needs a strong central mechanism so that it can be a driving force, but that has implications for sovereignty” that member states are not ready to accept.

At a time when Europe’s far more advanced drive for integration has been stalled by the continent’s financial turmoil and tensions between the E.U.’s richer and poorer member states, Southeast Asia “has to be extremely careful,” Pitsuwan said. “Europe for us is an inspiration, not a model.”